Tuesday, January 17, 2012

America's New Asiatic Fleet

Professor James Holmes has a piece online today in which he calls himself a "reluctant convert" to the idea of stationing LCS's in Singapore and according to Holmes, perhaps in the Philippines.  Here's a key thought from Holmes:  "The LCS, then, may be the right ship for the Southeast Asian theater while drawing the venom from Chinese rhetoric. In some ways, an LCS squadron would constitute a throwback to the U.S. Asiatic Fleet, which anchored the US presence in Asia until crushed by Japan early in World War II. The Asiatic Fleet was a light force, not a battle fleet. Its chief purpose was diplomacy."  I think Dr. Holmes' conversion is a good thing, and the strategic thinking behind it should be more closely examined.

Holmes points to remarks made by the new OPNAV Director of Surface Warfare (N86), RADM Thomas  Rowden at the recent Surface Navy Symposium (Galrahn cited his speech here), which included the line “aggressively fielding the LCS fleet in order to meet our vital war-fighting gaps and forward-deploy additional American flags on LCS halyards.”  What both Holmes and Rowden are pointing to is that in the great game of "assurance", numbers matter, and what are friends and allies in the South China Sea need from us right now is assurance.  Assurance that our fiscal problems aren't going to cause us to look irredeemably inward, leaving them to make unsavory choices about whether to strike security bargains with the Chinese or to arm up themselves, and assurance that their sovereignty--including their rights in disputed areas--will not be subject to a Chinese fait accompli. 

Rowden's got it right--flags on halyards make a difference.  It should be our aim to present the extended Chinese maritime fleet with the reality of seeing American flags flying from naval ships wherever they find themselves throughout the South China Sea littoral.  Forward deploying LCS is a great first step, one enabled by the innovative crewing scheme under consideration for their employment.  But LCS is just a first step.

The Navy should begin to consider the design of a fleet of fast patrol boats, our own Houbei's if you will.  These would be fast, lightly armored but well armed patrol boats, networked, equipped with integrated topside guns and an over the horizon surface to surface missile capability.  These boats would be built in numbers, and offered IMMEDIATELY for export to partners throughout the region. Crewed rotationally like LCS, these boats could operate in composite squadrons alongside partner nations manning the same platforms--bringing interoperability to its most basic level.  In essence--a new Asiatic Fleet.

Why would we do this?   Flags on halyards.  Our friends and allies would be more aware than ever of our light but persistent presence, as would those who might seek to disturb the peace.  These are clearly not envisioned as "war winning" vessels.  They are conceived of as "war avoiding" vessels.  Their presence--and the promise they represent of more powerful force over the horizon adds a deterrent component to their assurance role. 

But please note that I did not say we should "build" these vessels; just design them for now--perhaps begin to offer them for export.  But not for us, at least not yet.  Not in this environment.  As long as the Navy force structure is likely to take a hit and shipbuilding is likely to decline, we cannot afford to build ships of this nature.  But we should be ready to.  We should be ready to when either the economy improves and additional resources flow to defense, or if the defense budget does eventually become "imbalanced" in other than superficial ways, devoting a higher share of resources to shipbuilding.  The Asiatic Fleet was a good idea then, and it is a good idea now.

Bryan McGrath

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